I enlisted in the military a year before 9/11, and after that day that I watched the second plane crash into the South WTC Tower things changed. It didn’t take long for our country to spring into action, and before I knew it my base was announcing a deployment to Iraq. I wasn’t naive, exactly. I knew when I joined the military that war could happen, but I suppose I just wasn’t ready for it when it came around. I mean, I was proud to serve my country, and I had every intention of doing whatever my service required, but I was scared.
I remember calling my mom and dad on the phone and crying, “I don’t want to die.”
Some things you’re just not ready for, I guess. You can train, prepare, psych yourself, get motivated, or whatever. You can listen to the stories of those who have gone before you, hear the concerns of well-meaning family and friends, and be certain that you are prepared for the worst that can be thrown your way, but then when your number gets called, you’re stunned. When the crap hits the fan, you’re shocked. When the hard job becomes trying and more difficult than you ever imagined, you’re thrown off balance.
After I had cried to my parents, I dried my cheeks. I puffed out my chest, and I stood tall. I was still afraid, but my pride for country, dedication to duty, and commitment to my job helped me tell my folks it would be alright. Then I hung up the phone to go about my day. What I’m saying is, I was thrown off balance bad, but I stood back up and kept walking. It’s no wonder I became a nurse.
My mother was a nurse, and I still remember her saying, “are you sure?”
She wanted to ensure a career in nursing was really something I wanted for my life. She knew the difficulties I would face. At the time, I thought she meant long hours or working holidays and weekends. I had grown up seeing her do those things. I had heard her complain to my dad about documentation and staffing shortages, but I figured I could handle that too. I still remember the strange look on her face after I told her I was going into nursing, and before she asked if that’s what I really wanted. Her eyes had shown a mixture of pride, amusement over my ignorant excitement, and a concern for her child thrown into the mix. I realize now that she knew. She knew I’d be thrown off balance, but she didn’t know how it would go after that.
I still remember my first Code Blue. I was a new graduate, mid-twenties, on orientation, and green as spring grass. I was on night shift when we ran quickly to the ER as part of our Code Response Team. I was excited, scared, adrenaline pumping, hands shaking. It was just like all the medical shows I had watched with my mom, but better. We were saving lives, man! It was awesome!
But then it wasn’t. I felt the tone of the room change. I watched in shock as the man’s slack skin jiggled back and forth while a nurse violently pushed up and down on his chest. His flaccid body jerked up and down on the cold, narrow gurney. He face looked contorted from the large tube coming out of his open, drooling mouth. It was terrible. It was nothing like TV. This man was dead.
“Push another Epi,” the ER doc commanded!
The drawer I had been pulling from was depleted. Someone pushed new medicine cartridges into my hand, and with frantic fingers I assembled the syringe.
I could feel it in the air, though. This round wasn’t going to work either. The look on everyone’s face told me it was so.
“Hs and T’s, guys,” the doctor asked. “Anyone have any ideas?”
It was that last ditch effort, a collaborative meeting of the minds to try and think of something we could reverse to magically restore this man to life. Everyone stared ahead, silent, searching the database of their knowledge, but coming up with nothing.
“If no one objects,” the MD announced flatly, “we’ll call it. Time of death, 2357.”
And just like that it was over. The floor lay littered like a battlefield, the trash, drops of spilt blood, and empty syringes a reminder of the fight we had lost. Our prisoner of war still lay on the hard stretcher, a victim to the iron grip of death, despite our valiant efforts. I stood slack-jawed, surprised that we had stopped, and that the patient was really gone. In the back of my mind, as if through a cheesecloth, I heard the doctor say something about going to speak with the wife. It wasn’t supposed to go this way at all.
“Come on,” my preceptor called cheerfully. “We got a lot of charting to catch up on!”
That was fifteen years ago, but still fresh in my mind. I think, though, the one that shook me the most was an unnumbered Code. It wasn’t my first, nor my second, and not even the third. I had gone through dozens of codes by the time this one occurred, and as I assembled a medication syringe from the crash cart, my fingers moved at lightening speed. Like a liquid team, my SICU coworkers and I ran the event. We followed the steps smoothly, we did everything right, yet it ended the same way as my first code. It wasn’t as if death was a new thing for me. In fact, I had even done a stint as a Hospice Nurse. Death was a part of life. It was what happened to everyone. Yes, it was never “good,” per se, but it was inevitable. It was out of my control, in the end. So, I did not feel guilt. I didn’t feel overly traumatized by the event. It felt like any other work day, and maybe that’s why what happened next happened. Maybe God was trying to shake me up, make sure I could still feel.
You see, in nursing, after seeing death day in and day out, you build up a certain barrier. It’s not that you don’t care. It’s kinda hard to explain to the layman, but it’s like you stop making tears about the sad stuff, because you know that if you ever started crying, you may never stop. That’s the part you don’t anticipate in nursing. How the loss will affect you, how it will rock you, shake your foundation, threaten your faith, or harden your heart. You don’t realize how all the pain, death and dying, grief, and overwhelming helplessness will affect you. You don’t understand the pain of a hopeless situation or the trauma of being unable to change the downward spiral. You don’t understand it until you live it, and even then it changes.
This day, the day of an ordinary, unsuccessful code, I broke. Y’all, I fell apart, and I didn’t even see it coming. After this old woman died we called the family back to the room. It had been so unexpected. They didn’t even realize we were coding her until after she was already gone.
I stood in the room, readying the body before calling back the son. And at that moment, as I looked at the woman’s face, I saw her son kissing her cheek. Less than half an hour ago he had swept his lips across her cheek, telling her bye before she wheeled away for a simple procedure.
“See you in a minute, Momma,” he had said.
And that’s what I thought of as I straightened the sheet across her chest. He had no idea that would be the last time he saw her alive, and the thought of it made me bawl like a baby. Right there at a stranger’s bedside. My mother had passed away in much the same manner, and I never knew that particular kiss of mine on her cheek and “see ya later” would be our last. I also never knew when I became a nurse that the pain of others could become like my own, that I would build stoic fences to keep me strong, but let them be torn down just as easily to keep me empathically tender. Nursing hurts. I think that’s what that particular look in my mother’s eyes some twenty years ago was trying to say.
Not long ago my husband and I were watching Grey’s Anatomy. One of the surgeons was tore up by the loss of their patient. They were really having a hard time, and I told my husband, “I totally get it.”
I explained to him how after my last code and patient death I had trouble getting it out of my head. I had three days off after it happened, and I needed every one of them. And even after that, it was still hard to return to work. You see, I questioned myself. I didn’t do anything wrong. There was nothing I could have done to prevent his death, nor anything I could have done differently that would have been better. I knew this to be true, but it didn’t change the fact that I still asked myself those questions. When you hold life and death so closely, it’s hard not to take it personally, to feel responsible, to feel the pain, to feel grief, to feel defeat in some sort of strange way. I couldn’t stop my feelings of responsibility anymore than I could stop breathing. It came just as naturally. I don’t think I ever anticipated it would be this way.
It’s like that, you know? You stand straight, firm, tall, proud. You laugh so you don’t cry. You feign indifference even. You break down, you piece it back together. You march on, battle after battle, a soldier for good, an angel of health, moving forward in the calling you wear so mightily. Broad shoulders, air of confidence, liquid efficiency, like a well-oiled machine. You fall, you get back up. You cry sad, salty tears. You dry your eyes, you smile again, you laugh. Sometimes you do all these things in a single afternoon. You keep going. The pride, courage, and commitment continue. It hurts, it makes you happy. It breaks your heart, it repairs your confidence in mankind. It is Nursing, and I never anticipated it would be this way.
Thank you for opening your heart about this. Sometimes it is extremely difficult to hold yourself together when a patient dies. It’s been difficult for me when I’ve worked in long term facilities and developed a relationship with patients.
Yes, that happened with me in Hospice too.